How To Not Be a Commodity DBA – Part 1

A couple of months ago I wrote about the concept of the DBA as a commodity (DBAaaC), and how it can be so easy for management to consider any DBA as a basic, and replaceable resource within their organization. This got me to thinking (and it would seem that my thinking takes a long time) that maybe a little guidance would be in order to help prevent you from becoming a DBAaaC.

Not everyone is in the same situation, so I’ve broken this down in to a couple of parts, one for those of you that have the time, and inclination to get things done, and those of you that can barely find a half hour to themselves.

First up…when time for you isn’t a problem…

Continue reading “How To Not Be a Commodity DBA – Part 1”

DBA as a Commodity

If you’ve been working around the IT industry for a few years then you have probably heard mention of commodity servers. These are machines that run a standardized hardware spec, and are easily interchangeable with others. The price point around the machines is that it is typically cheaper to replace than it is to repair them, so once the warranty runs out you just throw the old one away and get a new one.

I was thinking about this the other day, and how it really goes beyond servers, which is where I thought about Database Administrators as a Commodity (or DBAaaC).

When first considering DBAaaC as an idea it really does not seem to make much sense. After all DBAs have to do all kinds of different work, and many have very different sets of skills that are applicable to a wide variety of situations.

If you are thinking that then the odds are that you are a DBA, or have worked closely with one over the years. This is not something that the vast majority of people, in particular IT management type folks seem to think.

What makes me believe this to be the case?

DBA Job Requirements

I’ve been in the DBA business for about 17 years now (why yes, that does make me feel old, thank you for asking). In this time I have had a few jobs, interviewed for many, and been an interviewer for even more. I have seen more generic DBA job desscriptions than I care to remember.

Generic Job Description
Typical job description

There are hundreds of jobs descriptions for SQL Server DBA jobs that look almost exactly like the one above, do a search yourself and see what commonalities seem to exist between roles. Think back to the last job description that you read, was it something similar to this?

Would it surprise you to learn that the above job description was actually copied from the job description of a company that was looking for an Oracle DBA?


How many jobs have you seen looking for someone holding an MCDBA? That’s a certification that existed through SQL Server 2000 and was replaced by the MCITP with 2005, and then with the MCSE Data Platform in the last couple of years. It would seem that with management team that these things are easily interchangeable, after all there really is not difference between running SQL Server 2000 running in a cluster, and SQL Server 2016 with a multi-subnet Availability Group running on a cluster that is not joined to a domain, using DMVs to help you identify performance bottlenecks.

What about jobs that are looking for an MVP? That’s an award given by Microsoft for community contributions. It is not a barometer of technical knowledge, and yet I have seen several DBA jobs looking for people who are MVPs.

Over the years I have seen many jobs that also will only consider people that have bachelor degrees, because apparently having a bachelor degree means that you will be good at your job. I do not have a degree (of any kind), and know several excellent DBAs that do not either, but every one of us would be excluded from these jobs just because we did not take four years of college (and we’ll ignore for now how that plays into systemic racism in the US).


Here are the general guidelines for DBAs that I’ve seen over the years:

  • Junior DBA – < 3 years of experience
  • DBA – 3-6 years of experience
  • Senior DBA – > 6 years of experience

These are usually baked right into the job descriptions, and it is how companies seem to manage peoples careers and job progressions (not to mention candidates looking for job seem to think that their skills put them in line for a job thanks to years working with SQL Server, not with actual knowledge).

This completely ignores whether a person looking for a DBA role has 5 years or varied experience, or 5 years doing the same thing day in and day out (checking if jobs ran, and answering business questions).

All the Technologies

Your generic job description will frequently be looking for someone with experience (if not expertise) with

  • SSIS
  • SSRS
  • DTS (yes really)
  • AlwaysOn (even though it’s not a thing)
  • MSCS (even though it was replaced by WSFC almost a decade ago)
  • VLDB (many places believe > 50GB = VLDB)
  • VMWare
  • Azure
  • TCP/IP
  • Windows 2003/2008/2008R2/2012/2012R2
  • TSQL
  • Maintenance Plans
  • Replication
  • and many more…

There tend to be long lists, like the above, for job roles. It is really just a list of buzzwords that the hiring manager (or the recruiting team) have put together so that they can plug them into their software to automatically weed out candidates that don’t have those words in their resumes.

The above examples are all ways to quickly recognize if a company is likely to treat anyone coming in as a DBAaaC.

What would be better?

A More Reasonable Job Description

Given the very generic information that is listed for almost all DBA positions what would make a role stand out? Usually it is something that is a little more crafted, and provides and understanding of the world in which the DBA works. For example a job that listed the following things:

  • Required 3+ years with Availability Groups
  • Understanding of DMVs and how to use them to troubleshoot server performance
  • Can tune queries to improve performance and lower server impact
  • Ability to manage SQL Server backups and restores to meet companies documented RPO/RTO
  • Experience managing maintenance for tables larger than 100GB in size
  • Knowledge of how Windows and Active Directory settings can impact SQL Server performance
  • Can work with development teams on best practice guidelines for new code, and provide performance enhancements when problems occur
  • Can troubleshoot SSIS packages
  • Preferred current MCSE certification

This by no means would be a perfect list, however it does provide some good information, and would let a potential candidate know that management here at least has a clue as to what is required to perform in the role, and provides a basis for a conversation.

Working as a DBA

Once you are in a company how can you recognize whether or not you are being treated as a DBAaaC?

Think about potential new hires that the company are looking to make. Are they using generic job descriptions?

Do promotions seem to happen thanks to longevity in the role, rather than be based upon some more hard based criteria around the work that you do? Is there a planned career path for you to move to the next position?

Do you perform the same work day in, and day out? Are you solely focused on backups, or indexing, or checking on failed jobs?

Is there a way that you can receive ongoing training to help you get additional knowledge? (even if this means just paying for some online videos, or giving you a section of time every month to spend on skills development)

Does your manager treat you like a truly valued member of the team, or are you just there ensuring that things are set to run smoothly?

If any of the above ring true to you then the chances are that you are seen as a commodity, and you can be thrown away at any point, and replaced by someone else (at least management believes that to be the case).

A Word of Advice to Management

There is every chance that you believe that the people that work for you are interchangeable, no matter the role (I’ve seen this over the years with developers, database, Windows, and Unix admins). People really aren’t, except at the lowest skill levels (and frequently even not then).

People are not machines, do not think that you can just throw the old one away and pick a new one up. Consider the ongoing learning that is required for your people to have skills that remain current, and help you move ahead. Certainly, at times you will have people leave, or you may have to let people go, but don’t treat your entire team as if they could be replaced at a moments notice.

If you think that all DBAs are the same, spend some time looking on Stack Exchange at some of the questions asked, and consider what questions on there your DBAs could answer (and what questions they may post). You’ll quickly see that DBAs are all different, they have different areas of focus, and each can give you different things. They are far from being a commodity.

Who Needs a DBA?

I was perusing my RSS Feeds this morning, and came across an article by Steve Jones (b|t) about Changing Times. In this post Steve talks about Microsoft not having any DBAs in their cloud team, and that it is all managed by DevOps folks. This message came from a talk that was given at SQLBits and summarized by Victoria Holt.

MS devops facts

Wow, this looks amazing, and really seems to ring the death knell for the DBA…or does it?

Let’s consider what we are looking at here, and for the purposes of this, I am going to focus on Azure SQL Database (or whatever we’re calling it this week).

There are 1.7 million production databases that do not have DBAs. Well, that’s flat out wrong, there might not be DBAs at Microsoft, but you can be pretty sure that there are DBAs out there managing a portion of those. I guess we should really focus on the Microsoft side of things.

So there are 1.7 million databases, what is Microsoft’s role in these databases? Other than keeping up the infrastructure that the databases are based upon not much really. They have no posted performance metrics to which they must aspire. They are not going to be in the business of ensuring that your backups are taken, your HA requirements are based upon you setting up the services and regions correctly, and they don’t care how fast or slow your query is. There is an SLA for uptime, and don’t worry, if it gets below 99% you get a 25% discount.

Given that there are no requirements to perform any work that a typical DBA would be required to do why would they need a DBA at all? They wouldn’t. It is this kind of information that makes people who work as DBAs question their existence and future, and frankly, there is no need to do that.

As a DBA you will find that the cloud will become a significant part of your future (if it is not already), and your role will shift, but there will always be a place for the on-premises products (for as long as it is made), and that means DBAs to manage it. Heck if you want to see what the world without DBAs looks like just skim through dba.stackexchange sometime.

I feel that a lot of messaging coming out of Microsoft puts a not insignificant level of fear into some people, as they attempt to set an example where the only people that really matter are developers, and developers sitting in a DevOps role. Is Microsoft going to change their tune around any of this? Nope, I don’t see that happening at any point. One thing you could question is, given that there are all these Azure databases that don’t have DBAs why is it that Microsoft has any DBAs working for them at all? Surely DevOps people would be all that they need.

Enabling IFI on Setup in SQL Server 2016

SQL Server 2016 has added a couple of nice new options to the setup experience. First they added the ability to have multiple tempdb files on install, a nice time saver for later. And now, with CTP 3.0 they have added the ability to enable IFI on install.

What is IFI, and how do I get it?

IFI stands for instant file initialization, and if you are not aware, enabling this allows SQL Server to grow data files almost instantaneously. Without this enabled the data file space has to be claimed and then filled with zeroes, something that is a long and arduous tasks, especially on slower spinning media type storage.

This is only relevant to data files, for security and integrity reasons the log files still need to be zeroed out.

Enabling IFI is actually quite a simple task, you just need to add the SQL service account to the Perform Volume Maintenance Tasks section of the Local Security Policy and then restart the SQL Server service.

What does SQL 2016 do differently?

Prior to SQL Server 2016 (CTP 3.0) you would need to manually add the SQL account to the Perform Volume Maintenance Tasks (PVMT) section of the Local Security Policy (secpol). Now you can have the installer take care of this for you. That really helps with not forgetting to do it later, which can cause some serious performance problems down the road.

Continue reading “Enabling IFI on Setup in SQL Server 2016”

BCP and Code Page Fun

Quick, what’s the fastest and easiest way to get data out of a SQL Server table?

Time’s up. It’s BCP.

If you aren’t familiar with BCP it is a command line utility to bulk copy data out of, and in to tables. It has been around for donkeys years (technical term), and while it doesn’t have the frills of SSIS it is fast, and lightweight. DBAs have been using it for years, but it may not be something that you’ve heard of.

Recently, while BCPing some data between servers I ran into an interesting problem which caused the data imported to be different than that exported. How does that happen? Code pages…

Continue reading “BCP and Code Page Fun”

ISNULL & Data Length Handling

Some folks are not fans of having NULL values in your data. I am not much of a fan myself, however sometimes (all the time) they are a reality in which we have to deal. When working with NULL there are lots of strange behaviors you have to be sure to manage, for example WHERE x = NULL gets you nothing, whereas WHERE x IS NULL gets you the data you want (which will still depending on your ANSI NULL settings). Not much fun to be had with NULL.

Something else to be careful of is managing queries where you might look at a value in one column, and if it’s a NULL, return the value from another. For example:

Continue reading “ISNULL & Data Length Handling”

FusionIO and the Go Faster Button

Nobody has ever said that FusionIO cards were slow (because they aren’t). Especially if you compare their performance to regular spinning media, or high performance SANs. After all, no SAN will allow you to measure storage write latency in microseconds.

Anyone that has had their database reside on a FusionIO card has had nothing but good things to say about them. The only thing is that a lot of people are probably not making the most out of the cards that they have. FusionIO cards actually have an artificial performance restriction put on them, and can go even faster than they do now.

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Improving Performance When Querying Multiple DMVs

A couple of days ago I posted a stored procedure (sp_GetAGInformation) which queried multiple DMVs to pull together a bunch of AvailabilityGroup information. If you took a look at the code you would see that it used a couple of CTEs (Common Table Expressions).

CTEs are a great way to do recursive work, and they can also greatly simplify reading code. A CTE without recursion is really nothing more than a subquery that is nicely wrapped.

For example:


Basic CTE

Is the same thing as:


Basic Subquery

This can easily lead you down the path towards poor performance. It is quite easy to define a CTE once and use it multiple times, not realizing that every time you use the CTE then you are performing that subquery, meaning is has to be evaluated and executed.

For smaller queries this is not usually a problem, but for larger queries and more importantly when working with DMVs this can be a serious performance problem.

Continue reading “Improving Performance When Querying Multiple DMVs”